In the Matter of Shondel J.,
2006 NY Int. 102
In this child support proceeding, we hold that a man
who has mistakenly represented himself as a child's father may be
estopped from denying paternity, and made to pay child support,
when the child justifiably relied on the man's representation of
In January 1996, Shondel J. gave birth to a daughter in Guyana, where she then resided, and in a birth registration document named Mark D. as the father. Shondel and Mark had dated the previous spring in Guyana and had sexual intercourse.
Although Mark was in New York when the child was born, he provided financial support for the child and returned to Guyana later in the year to see her. In a sworn statement, notarized by the Guyana Consul-General in New York in January 1996, Mark declared that he was "convinced" that he was the child's father and accepted "all paternal responsibilities including child support." In 1998 he signed a Guyana registry, stating that he was her father and authorizing the change of her last name to his. Mark named the child the primary beneficiary on his life insurance policy, identifying her as his daughter. He also sent Shondel money monthly for the child's support from her birth until June 1999 and then less regularly through the summer of 2000.
In August 2000, Shondel commenced a Family Court
article 5 proceeding alleging that Mark is the father and seeking
orders of filiation and support. Initially, Mark did not contest
paternity. On the contrary, in September 2000, when the child
In October 2000, however, when appearing before a Family Court hearing examiner to answer Shondel's petition, Mark requested DNA testing. The hearing examiner ordered genetic marker tests, which revealed that Mark in fact is not the child's biological father. The hearing examiner then dismissed Shondel's paternity petition, and Mark abandoned his petition for visitation, having severed his relationship with the child. Shondel objected to the hearing examiner's order, expressing doubts about the laboratory tests and stating that she would be able to show that Mark had always recognized the child as his. Realizing that the hearing examiner had exceeded her authority in dismissing Shondel's petition, Family Court sustained her objection and appointed a law guardian for the child.
In October 2001, the Law Guardian reported that Mark had acted as the father of the child, who in turn considered him her father. Family Court set the matter down for a trial on equitable estoppel and ordered another set of tests. A blood genetic marker test confirmed that Mark is not the child's biological father.
At the estoppel trial, Family Court heard widely
diverging testimony from Shondel and Mark. According to
Mark denied all of this, asserting that he had seen the child only four times since her birth; that he had not acknowledged the child as his; that he had not introduced the child to his family or friends as his child; that he had not sent the child birthday or Christmas gifts; and that he had never visited her. Mark testified that he twice asked Shondel to submit to a blood test to determine whether he was the father of her child. Shondel insisted that he did not.
Family Court believed Shondel "entirely" and found
Mark's testimony incredible. It ruled that Mark "held himself
out as [the] child's father, and behaved in every way as if he
was the father, albeit a father who didn't reside for a good part
of the child's life, in the same country." These affirmed
findings of Family Court have support in the record and are
Family Court entered an order of filiation and awarded child support retroactive to the date Shondel commenced the Family Court proceeding. The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that "Family Court properly determined that it was in the best interests of the subject child to equitably estop [Mark] from denying paternity" (6 AD3d 437). We agree, based on our precedents, the affirmed findings of fact and the legislative recognition of paternity by estoppel.
The purpose of equitable estoppel is to preclude a person from asserting a right when he or she has led another to form the reasonable belief that the right would not be asserted, and loss or prejudice to the other would result if the right were asserted. The law imposes the doctrine as a matter of fairness. Its purpose is to prevent someone from enforcing rights that would work injustice on the person against whom enforcement is sought and who, while justifiably relying on the opposing party's actions, has been misled into a detrimental change of position ( see generally Nassau Trust Co. v Montrose Concrete Products Corp., , 56 NY2d 175, 184 ).
New York courts have long applied the doctrine of
Although it originated in case law, paternity by estoppel is now secured by statute in New York ( see Family Court Act §§ 418 [a] and 532 [a]). For that reason, and contrary to Mark's assertions, it is not for us to decide whether the doctrine has a rightful place in New York law. Clearly it does, in the absence of legislative repeal or a determination of unconstitutionality. Mark argues for the first time in this appeal that §§ 418 (a) and 532 (a) are unconstitutional and deprive him of due process. As this claim was not raised in the courts below, we do not entertain it.
Equitable estoppel is gender neutral. In Matter of
Sharon GG. v Duane HH. (63 2 859 , affg 95 AD2d 466 [3d
Dept 1983]), we affirmed an order of the Appellate Division
dismissing a paternity petition in which a mother sought to
compel her husband to submit to a blood test as a means of
challenging his paternity. We agreed with the Appellate Division
that the mother should be estopped. As that court pointed out,
the mother expressed no question about her child's paternity
until some two and a half years after the child's birth. She had
held the child out as her husband's, accepted his support for the
child while she and her husband lived together and after they
separated, and permitted her husband and child to form strong
Estoppel may also preclude a man who claims to be a child's biological father from asserting his paternity when he acquiesced in the establishment of a strong parent-child bond between the child and another man. The rationale is that the child would be harmed by a determination that someone else is the biological father. For example, in Purificati v Paricos (154 AD2d 360 [2d Dept 1989]), a boy's biological father who did not seek to establish his paternity until more than three years after the child's birth, and who acquiesced as a relationship flourished between the boy and his mother's former husband, was estopped from claiming paternity. The courts "impose equitable estoppel to protect the status interests of a child in an already recognized and operative parent-child relationship" ( In re Baby Boy C., , 84 NY2d 91, 102 n ).
Finally, the Appellate Division has repeatedly
concluded that a man who has held himself out to be the father of
a child, so that a parent-child relationship developed between
the two, may be estopped from denying paternity.
Where a child
justifiably relies on the representations of a man that he is her
father with the result that she will be harmed by the man's
denial of paternity, the man may be estopped from asserting that
Mark represented that he was the father of the child, and she justifiably relied on this representation, changing her position by forming a bond with him, to her ultimate detriment. He is therefore estopped from denying paternity.
Mark expressly represented that he was the father of Shondel's child in the notarized sworn statement and in the Guyana registry in which he gave the child his name, as well as in the visitation petition filed with Family Court. Further, Mark held himself out as the child's father, and behaved in every way as if he was the father. Mark and the child had a close relationship, in which he referred to himself as her "daddy," and which involved regular telephone conversations, frequent visits when she and Mark were in the same city, and contact with his parents. Moreover, Mark named the child as the primary beneficiary on his life insurance policy and sent money monthly for the child's support until June 1999 and then less regularly through the summer of 2000.
The record also establishes that the child justifiably
relied on Mark's representations, accepting him as her father and
In the best interests of the child, Family Court properly applied estoppel, to impose support obligations on Mark, after he left the child with the detrimental effects of a relationship in which she was misled into believing that he was her father. A mother who had perfect foresight and knew that her child's relationship with a father figure would be severed when the child was four and a half might well choose never to inform him of her child's birth.
Mark attacks the statutory basis for the application of
paternity by estoppel. In 1990, the Legislature amended Family Court Act § 418 (a), which governs the procedures related to
scientific testing of biological paternity in support
proceedings, so as to read, in pertinent part:
"The court, on its own motion or motion of any party, when paternity is contested, shall order the mother, the child and the alleged father to submit to one or more genetic marker or DNA marker tests . . . to aid in the determination of whether the alleged father is or is not the father of the child. No such test shall be ordered, however, upon a written finding by the court that it is not in the best interests of the child on the basis of res judicata, equitable estoppel or the presumption of legitimacy of a child born to a married woman."
(Family Court Act § 418 [a] [emphasis supplied]; see L 1990, ch 818, § 12.)
Arguing that the statute is self-contradictory, Mark asserts that the law mandates scientific testing of biological paternity in support proceedings and then in the next sentence makes such tests discretionary. We view the statute differently.
By providing a limited "best interests of the child" exception to mandatory biological tests of disputed paternity, the statute requires Family Court to justify its refusal to order biological tests when paternity is in issue. Before the amendment, Family Court was authorized, but not required, to order biological tests, and the court did not have to justify its refusal to do so. Now, in a support proceeding in which paternity is disputed, Family Court must explain why it denies a motion for biological paternity testing. The court may deny testing based on "res judicata, equitable estoppel or the presumption of legitimacy of a child born to a married woman," if denial is in the best interests of the child.
It is true that a child in a support proceeding has an
interest in finding out the identity of her biological father.
The procedure contemplated by § 418 (a) is that Family Court should consider paternity by estoppel before it decides whether to test for biological paternity. Here, the process was inverted early in the proceeding. Instead of referring the matter to a Family Court judge, the hearing examiner ordered genetic marker tests of paternity when the parties appeared in October 2000. As a result, the child's biological paternity had been addressed before Family Court conducted its trial on the issue of estoppel. Nevertheless, even though the tests had been conducted, Family Court was authorized to decide the estoppel issue.
In allowing a court to declare paternity irrespective
of biological fatherhood, the Legislature made a deliberate
policy choice that speaks directly to the case before us. The
potential damage to a child's psyche caused by suddenly ending
established parental support need only be stated to be
appreciated. Cutting off that support, whether emotional or
financial, may leave the child in a worse position than if that
Asserting that the equities are with Mark, our dissenting colleagues argue that we do not acknowledge the fraud or misrepresentation exception to the doctrine of equitable estoppel. This argument is misplaced for three reasons. To begin with, the child is the party in whose favor estoppel is being applied and there can be no claim here that she was guilty of fraud or misrepresentation. Secondly, to the extent that it matters, we note that there is no evidence of fraud or willful misrepresentation even on Shondel's part. It is not likely that she would have initiated paternity proceedings, with the predictable prospect of biological testing, if she expected tests to rule him out as the father. There is every reason to believe that she thought Mark was the biological father and that the tests would confirm her belief. Finally, the issue does not involve the equities between the two adults; the case turns exclusively on the best interests of the child.
We appreciate the dissenters' concern over applying
estoppel to a case in which, as between Mark and Shondel, it was
she who misrepresented Mark to be the father (even though she may
have earnestly believed he was). The dissenters' position,
To the child, Mark represented himself as her father. The Legislature did not create an exception for men who take on the role of fatherhood based on the mother's misrepresentation. That would eviscerate the statute and, with it, the child's best interests. Under the enactment, the mother's motivation and honesty are irrelevant; the only issue for the court is how the interests of the child are best served.
Here, Family Court found, and the Appellate Division affirmed, that Mark represented himself to be the father and that the child's best interests would be served by a declaration of fatherhood. Under our decisional law, and contrary to the dissenters' suggestion, equitable estoppel does not require that Mark, to be estopped, necessarily knew that his representation was false. A party who, like Mark, does not realize that his representation was factually inaccurate may yet be estopped from denying that representation when someone else -- here the child - - justifiably relied on it to her detriment ( see Romano v Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 271 NY 288, 293-294 ; Triple Cities Constr. Co. v Maryland Cas. Co., , 4 NY2d 443, 448 ).
The dissenters cite Simcuski v Saeli (, 44 NY2d 442
), which holds that a defendant may be estopped to plead
the Statute of Limitations after having wrongfully induced the
Our dissenting colleagues point out that Mark has renounced fatherhood and now has no relationship with the child. This state of affairs, however, does not preclude the application of estoppel. If it did, a man could defeat the statute simply by severing all ties with the child.
Given the statute recognizing paternity by estoppel, a man who harbors doubts about his biological paternity of a child has a choice to make. He may either put the doubts aside and initiate a parental relationship with the child, or insist on a scientific test of paternity before initiating a parental relationship. A possible result of the first option is paternity by estoppel; the other course creates the risk of damage to the relationship with the woman. It is not an easy choice, but at times, the law intersects with the province of personal relationships and some strain is inevitable. This should not be allowed to distract the Family Court from its principal purpose in paternity and support proceedings -- to serve the best interests of the child.
Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should
be affirmed, without costs.
The issue in this case is whether an individual non- spouse who was falsely told he was the biological father of a child and who DNA tests show could not be the biological father can be equitably estopped from denying paternity. A man or woman is and should be responsible for the financial support of his or her own offspring. In some instances, this responsibility may be placed upon a non-biological parent. The facts in this case do not justify such a result. Because the "best interests of the child" require more than financial support, and equitable estoppel should be applicable only to someone who engages in false conduct, I dissent.
In 1995, while on a trip to Georgetown, Guyana,
respondent Mark D. met and engaged in sexual intercourse with the
petitioner, Shondel J. Following his return to the United
States, Shondel J. told respondent she was pregnant and he began
financially supporting petitioner. In 1996, respondent signed
documents submitted to the Guyanese Consul that declared him to
In 2000, Shondel J. commenced a Family Court proceeding in New York to declare Mark D. the child's father and to obtain an order of support. Family Court ordered DNA tests at Mark D.'s request and the DNA saliva swab test excluded paternity. In 2001, Family Court dismissed Shondel J.'s petition and she filed objections to the order of dismissal, alleging that the DNA test was erroneous. In November, 2001, the results of a new blood test showed respondent was not the biological father. On August 8, 2002, in Family Court, Kings County, respondent was declared the child's father on the verified petition originally filed by petitioner. The court stated:
On April 5, 2004, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the Family Court's order of filiation. On May 9, 2005, the Second Department dismissed respondent's appeal from a Family Court order of retroactive child support, and affirmed an order of support against him.
"The essence of the paternity trial was really one of equitable estoppel, should [Mark D.] be estopped from denying paternity. . . . I do find the Petitioner to have been entirely credible, and with all due respect, except in one regard, [Mark D.] entirely incredible. I do believe that he had doubts, however, he didn't act on them in the appropriate fashion, and as a result he held himself out as this child's father, and behaved in every way as if he was the father, albeit a father who didn't reside for a good part of the child's life, in the same country. However, it's clear to me that
these families were involved with each other, involved with this child, that his parents and probably other friends and relatives and church members were aware of this relationship, were aware of this child . . . . I would assume that for the best - - and hope that for the best interests of the child, that he could pick up where he left off, and accept this child wholeheartedly into his life, because the child certainly wants that, and really, what's paramount here is what the child needs."
The question here is not, as the majority suggests,
whether equitable estoppel has a rightful place in New York law
(majority op at 6) or in paternity proceedings. The statute
makes clear that it does. The question is whether the elements
of estoppel are present in this case. Equitable estoppel is a
"defensive doctrine preventing one party from taking unfair
advantage of another when, through false language or conduct, the
person to be estopped had induced another person to act in a
certain way, with the result that the other person has been
injured in some way" (Black's Law Dictionary 443 [7th ed 1999];
see also Simcuski v Saeli, , 44 NY2d 442, 448-449 [stating
defendant may be equitably estopped "where plaintiff was induced
by fraud, misrepresentations or deception to refrain from filing
According to Family Court Act §§ 418(a) and 532(a) which are identical in language:
"The court shall advise the parties of their right to one or more genetic marker tests or DNA tests and, on the court's own motion or the motion of any party, shall order the mother, her child and the alleged father to submit to one or more genetic marker or DNA tests of a type generally acknowledged as reliable by an accreditation body designated by the secretary of the federal department of health and human services and performed by a laboratory approved by such an accreditation body and by the commissioner of health or by a duly qualified physician to aid in the determination of whether the alleged father is or is not the father of the child. No such test shall be ordered, however, upon a written finding by the court that it is not in the best interests of the child on the basis of res judicata, equitable estoppel, or the presumption of legitimacy of a child born to a married woman. The record or report of the results of any such genetic marker or DNA test ordered pursuant to this section or pursuant to section one hundred eleven-k of the social services law shall be received in evidence by the court pursuant to subdivision
(e) of rule forty-five hundred eighteen of the civil practice law and rules where no timely objection in writing has been made thereto and that if such timely objections are not made, they shall be deemed waived and shall not be heard by the court. If the record or report of the results of any such genetic marker or DNA test or tests indicate at least a ninety-five percent probability of paternity, the admission of such record or report shall create a rebuttable presumption of paternity, and shall establish, if unrebutted, the paternity of and liability for the support of a child pursuant to this article and article four of this act" (emphasis added).
The majority posits that once Shondel J. claimed Mark D. was the father and made a showing (visits, support, sworn statements), it was respondent's burden to show equitable estoppel should not be applied since it would not be in the best interests of the child. The facts are not sufficient to support equitable estoppel. While Mark D. financially supported the child and made time to visit her, he has not (in the language of Black's Law Dictionary) taken unfair advantage or been guilty of false language or conduct; he has not (in the language of our decision in Simcuski) committed any fraud, misrepresentation or deception. Thus an essential element of equitable estoppel does not exist.
The record is clear that Shondel J. misrepresented the
Moreover, this is a poor case for abandoning the
traditional elements of estoppel. The balance of equities is in
Mark D.'s favor. Contrary to the majority's view (majority at
13), there is strong evidence of fraud or wilful
misrepresentation by Shondel J. She not only told Mark D. that
the child was his, she swore in Family Court that she had sexual
relations with no other man during the relevant time period -_
testimony proven by DNA tests to be false. Perhaps more
important, this is not a case where a child lived for years with,
and was brought up by, a man she had always thought was her
father ( cf. In re Diana E. v Angel M., 20 AD3d 370 ). At
the time of the paternity proceeding, the child had lived most of
her life in a different country from Mark D., and their
relationship was primarily on the telephone. This is a case in
which this Court should remember the rightful reluctance of
The majority's ruling allows disestablishment of paternity if a presumed father acts promptly but does not allow for an exception for those who have acted in reliance on a misrepresentation or a fraud. The balance of equities should rarely favor continuing such misrepresentation or fraud. To hold, as the majority does, would reward a presumed father who takes no role in a child's life until a DNA test makes it official or a mother who obtains paternal obligations through fraud. As the Massachusetts Supreme Court wrote in A.R. v C.R.:
We would proceed with caution, as other courts have, in imposing a duty of support on a person who has not adopted a child, is not the child's natural parent, but has undertaken voluntarily to support the child and to act as a parent. [Citations omitted]. In most instances, such conduct should be encouraged as a matter of public policy. The obligation to support a child primarily rests with the natural parents, and one who undertakes that task without any duty to do so generally should not be punished if he or she should abandon it. On the other hand, a husband who for years acts as a father to a child born to the wife, supports that child, and holds himself out as the father to the child and to the world, may be obliged to continue to support the child when he, for the first time,
renounces his apparent paternity in an attempt to avoid court-imposed support obligations. It may be relevant, in deciding whether reliance was detrimental, to know whether there once was an opportunity to pursue the natural father that is now lost" (411 Mass 570, 575 [emphasis added]).
With this decision, this Court supports a public policy that says a man should never take on a parental role unless he wants to be unconditionally responsible for the child's financial support.
Finally, it is not in the best interests of the child
in this matter that the order of filiation and order of support
be affirmed. The Law Guardian concedes that Mark D.'s
contributions to this child's life will only be financial. He
has had no contact with the child since March 2000. Unlike
Matter of Sharon GG., where an estranged husband fought to keep
his parental rights, in this matter we have a man fighting to
divorce his financial interests from petitioner and her child.
While it was in the best interests of the child in Sharon GG. to
maintain a relationship with an estranged husband who had filled
the role of father in every way, it should not be said here that
it is in the best interests of a child to have an order of
filiation declare respondent to be her father, a man, who in
addition to having no biological tie, has no interest in
continuing a relationship with her or her mother.
Accordingly, I dissent.
1 This Appellate Division order is brought up for review here by Mark's appeal of a later Appellate Division order dismissing his objections to the child support order (18 AD3d 551).
2 See Mancinelli v Mancinelli (203 AD2d 634 [3d Dept 1994]); Commissioner of Social Servs. ex rel. Barbara A. v Gregory B. (211 2 956 [3d Dept 1995]); Brian B. v Dionne B. >(267 AD2d 188 [2d Dept 1999]); Jennifer "W" v Steven "X" (268 2 800 [3d Dept 2000]); Ocasio v. Ocasio (276 AD2d 680 [2d Dept 2000]); Sarah S. v James T. (299 2 785 [3d Dept 2002]); Diana E. v Angel M., 20 AD3d 370 [1st Dept 2005]).
3 As one court put it, "[t]he law is not so insensitive as to countenance the breach of an obligation in so vital and deep a relation, undertaken, partially fulfilled, and suddenly sundered." ( Clevenger v Clevenger, 189 Cal App 2d 658, 674 [Cal Ct App 1961]; accord Pietros v Pietros, 638 A2d 545, 548 [RI 1994].)
4 It is arguable that because DNA and other tests were ordered prior to any decision on equitable estoppel, the said doctrine should not apply here at all.
5 Respondent argues that his constitutional rights are being violated since he is being deprived of his property in violation of the due process clauses of the federal and state constitutions. We do not address this argument because of the view taken with respect to equitable estoppel.